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'Mirror's Edge': A Leap of Faith

Peter Rizkalla talks with Mirror's Edge Art Director Johannes Soderqvist and Senior Animator Tobias Dahl to discover how the unique first-person shooter was created.

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When Mirror's Edge was first announced, no one really knew what to make of a first-person action adventure game. 

When you see Mirror's Edge for the first time, a variety of words would probably pop up but one in particular should be more apparent than others: "innovative." That's because Mirror's Edge is the first of its kind; no one else has put together what you see and experience in Mirror's Edge and that is exactly the intention of the developers over at EA DICE.

Mirror's Edge has the same POV as a first-person shooter but you hardly ever carry a gun. The main character is a female but she isn't the typical scantily-clad and curvaceous Amazonian that we often see in a game. Mirror's Edge is quite a change from the ordinary game, but change is good. I talked with couple of the big dogs in EA DICE's yard, Art Director Johannes Soderqvist and Senior Animator Tobias Dahl to get a good grip on how Mirror's Edge was created with such a unique style and why they decided to take such an uncommon direction.

The visuals are always where they start. Soderqvist says, "When I first got on the team, I was given the challenge to 'create an art direction that makes you recognize a Mirror's Edge screenshot immediately in a sea of other games.'" Already an enormous challenge, Johannes continues, "This gave me the license to go for something unique, new and different. We created a world where contrast in colors, lighting and space impacts your senses and gives a visceral experience of seeing the world through the eyes of a runner. I then looked for visual elements that would make strong bold colors look tasteful and gorgeous instead of making you think of a garish circus tent."

The predominant color of Mirror's Edge is red. So, why red? Soderqvist explains, "Red looks so awesome against white and it is a very strong vibrant color in a classic sense unlike hot pink, orange or turquoise." In any form of design, if you want a certain color or element to stand out, you have to control the other colors and elements around. Soderqvist adds that, "The palette we used is fairly controlled and specific. The blue skies and shadows together with the white geometry create a minty cool look and all the other colors we used were chosen as a contrast to this, mainly warm autumn hues. Green was practically banned from exteriors and instead used in a lot of the interiors." Most of the cities and props in Mirror's Edge are based on what you would see in Tokyo. The DICE team actually traveled to Tokyo and took thousands of pictures to use as a reference when developing the Mirror's Edge world.

Naturally, you would think that a world like that would require an extraordinary amount of lighting techniques to properly communicate it to the viewer and you would be right. Soderqvist adds, "Even though we had a dedicated rendering farm and agents installed on every computer in the studio, lighting one level could take more than 20 hours." Soderqvist suggests lighting was one of the hardest hurdles to climb in making Mirror's Edge, aside from the movement system. Because lighting was such a huge task, DICE worked with Illuminate Labs to help create and render their lighting for Mirror's Edge.

The blue skies and shadows together with the white geometry create a minty cool look with a strong red color standing out. 

Dahl explains that the team wanted to accurately give the player a believable and playable experience when controlling Faith, the main character. To do that and create quality animation, the team did everything from use photo references to actually putting video cameras on their heads and running around to see what it would look like. Dahl says, "The key to succeeding with first-person animation is to animate what you perceive and not exactly how things move in real life, i.e. what your eyes do, not your head and body." Obviously, the question of motion capture had to come up and Dahl responds, "We hand keyed all of our animations except for the cut scenes and some of the run cycles for the AI." He adds, "We developed our own animation tools in Maya that helped streamline the pipeline to be able to produce all the animations needed for the project." NVIDIA provided their PhysX game engine for the PC version of Mirror's Edge.

Faith is very interesting in that she is actually a very believable character. She looks like a woman you might actually meet but with a unique style and fashion sense. It turns out that the design for Faith was actually birthed from a variety of concept art for a non-playable character. Soderqvist says, "The development of Faith is a series of thought-out details, deliberate choices mixed with a healthy dose of luck and personal idiosyncrasies. We were working on some characters for a group of Yakuza criminals. One of them was a fixer; a tech-savvy young woman. The concept artist came up with a bunch of sketches that we combined into a cool character with lots of fun details." Soderqvist goes on about Faith's clothes, "We looked for a mixture of sporty practical clothing with something that has a punky attitude without looking trashy and gritty. She should look different and outside of normal society; she is part of a 'tribe' of runners. It was important to not make her look too goth, too emo or like a tiresome tempestuous teen. She is a strong, attractive woman with integrity and a will of her own.

Faith's design, character and look were carefully crafted to emulate a strong, attractive woman with integrity and a will of her own.

"The game has so much character and breaks new ground in so many areas. I am proud of the 'grown up' aspect of both Faith and the art style," Soderqvist says. DICE wanted to create a title that does not cater to the same notion that what the typical game audience wants is what they have already been getting. "I'd have to say that it was challenging at first getting people on our side. There are a lot of things about this game that are quite different, from the stylized art to the first person platforming, and at first many people were skeptical. However as the game developed and they saw more of it that soon changed for the better," Soderqvist concludes.

What does Soderqvist consider a great game? "A world with perfect immersion within the rules of its own universe." is the answer. EA DICE is best known for Battlefield: Bad Company, a first-person shooter that was released mid-2008. Whether DICE decides to create more innovative games like Mirror's Edge or not remains to be seen. Either way, innovation is what keeps any industry alive, and there is always a new plateau to discover in the game industry.

Mirror's Edge is out now for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.

Peter Rizkalla is a lifelong enthusiast of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in various videogame companies such as THQ, Namco/Bandai and 2K Games and avidly attends many game conferences and events. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.

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